Darwin versus the divine designer

John Gribbin reviews The Plausibility of Life by Marc Kirschner & John Gerhart, in The Independent:

Book161205_104423aThe Plausibility of Life is a serious book, in the same sense that, say, histories by Anthony Beevor are serious, but no harder to read. It deals with topics such as chaos and complexity that are also relevant to an understanding of human history, as well as of human origins.

The bottom line of the argument is that life is organised in such a way that potentially useful variations are thrown up in every generation, and that this facility for variation has itself evolved. That helps, perhaps, to explain why life on Earth existed only in single-celled forms for billions of years before exploding into the variety around us today.

This idea, which the authors dub “facilitated evolution”, carries a bonus. Instead of making it hard to understand how complex structures like the eye or wing could have evolved, facilitated evolution works precisely because the organisms on which evolution operates have great potential for variation. As the authors point out, this pulls the rug from under the argument for “intelligent design”.

More here.

Introduction to GOP D.C.

From The New Republic:

Img_052020wash20monument20with20capitol2Washington, D.C., is the most powerful city in the world, a capital lined with grand monuments and crowded with intimidating VIPs. And, to the average visitor, it can also be a confusing place–one where it’s difficult to understand the difference between Viveca Novak and Bob Novak, between a Choctaw and a Coushatta, between Official A and Representative #1. The Rough Guide to GOP D.C. seeks to demystify this town. You won’t just visit slabs of marble and imbibe the spirit of democracy; you’ll eat and drink in the skyboxes and hotel rooms where democracy is actually subverted (ahem, we mean practiced). You won’t just learn about our nation’s great legal system; you will snap photos of the actual spots where famous Washingtonians broke the law. While other guides explain how politicians win elections, you’ll learn how they abuse power. After five years of George W. Bush’s presidency and eleven years of GOP rule in Congress, Republicans have permanently altered the city’s culture and character. This is a guide to the new Washington they have created.

More here.

quest for the perfect hors d’oeuvre

Sara Dickerman in Slate:

ThreespoonsThe term hors d’oeuvre means “outside the work” in French, and it was first applied to food during the Enlightenment era, when minor dishes were served in addition to the soups and roasts and timbales of a grand dinner. But at a contemporary cocktail party, the hors d’oeuvres are the work. And in today’s restaurants, where small plates and “snacks” are fashionable, there is increasing emphasis on creating the perfect mouthful.

What, then, is the ideal hors d’oeuvre? The best ones follow a few rules: They should be easy to eat in one or two bites. They should pass the silk-blouse test and not erupt, dribble, crumble, or otherwise fall apart when picked up. Finally, hors d’oeuvres should be punchy little treats—the cocktail hour is no time for subtlety or thoughtful savoring.

More here.

Can Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., save the Times—and himself?

Ken Auletta in The New Yorker:

Arthur_sulzbergerTwice in the last three years, the Times newsroom has suffered the equivalent of a nervous breakdown, and critics say that Sulzberger has managed the latest crisis as poorly as he did the episode involving the fabrications of the reporter Jayson Blair, which led, in 2003, to the firing of Howell Raines, the executive editor. These newsroom crises have come when the Times can least afford them—during a period of technological and economic uncertainty that has affected the entire industry. The Times’ stock price fell 33.2 per cent between December 31, 2004, and October 31, 2005—sixty per cent more than the industry average, according to Merrill Lynch newspaper analysts. The operating profit of the Times Company has also slipped in each of the past three years…

In this crisis of identity, some of the criticism is directed at Keller and his team, for what is seen as a lack of forceful leadership, but the publisher has, fairly or not, become a particular source of concern; one Times Company executive who respects Sulzberger’s commitment to journalism considers him no more than a business “figurehead.” In late October, a family friend asked, “Is Arthur going to get fired?”

More here.

The woman who discovered how to measure the universe

Mark Mortimer reviews Miss Leavitt’s Stars by George Johnson, in Universe Today:

LeavittMiss Henrietta Swan Leavitt obtained work at Harvard Observatory to review photographic plates. These were coming in fast and furious from the many large observatories being built in the Americas. These plates recorded the moment, but humans needed to interpret the dots. Small differences may be due to atmospheric effects, telescope adjustments, emulsion reactions or human intervention. Yet interpreting dots was considered an unworthy task for men, so women like Miss Leavitt were paid about minimum wage to spend hours every day looking at these plates, comparing each against another and against various metrics. With their effort, characteristics were catalogued for tens of thousands of stars.

…Johnson smoothly takes the reader on a journey through parallax measurements, red-blue shifting, luminosity, galaxies and variables. Certainly there’s Leavitt’s discovery published in 1908 where she noted that brighter variables have longer periods. This observation came in a publication that gave a full account of 1777 variables in the Magellanic Cloud, and was so entitled. We also read of Shapely’s and Curtis’s debate in 1920 on whether the Milky Way was the universe or whether the Milky Way was just one typical galaxy amongst others. Eventually Edwin Hubble used Leavitt’s relationship of Cepheid variables to show that Barnard’s Galaxy was over 700,000 light years away and certainly outside the realm of the Milky Way.

More here.

The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th Century Science

Aparna Sreenivasan reviews Alan Lightman’s new book in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Alan“[P]hilosophy students read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, political science majors read the U.S. Constitution, and literature classes read Hamlet and Moby-Dick, but students of science hardly ever read the original works of Mendeleyev or Curie or Einstein,” writes Lightman. And he is correct. It seems rare that a science major at an undergraduate institution in America would be required to learn scientific history by reading a batch of seminal papers from the past.

The reason is probably, as Lightman states, that recent results are usually what drive the scientific community. But without the chasms of questions chiseled by early researchers, science would not be where it is today. And by reading those influential papers, the author surmises, scientists and the general public alike will be exposed to the artistic nature of the groundbreaking work of yesteryear.

With some of these thoughts in mind, Lightman collects and describes 25 papers that represent some of the greatest discoveries in science during the 20th century.

More here.

online game industry an excellent way to study economics

From The Economist:

5105bk1Millions of people now spend several hours a week immersed in “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” (MMORPGs). These are often Tolkienesque fantasy worlds in which players battle monsters, go on quests, and build up their virtual power and wealth. Some synthetic worlds are deliberately escapist; others are designed to be as lifelike and realistic as possible. Many have a strong libertarian bent. Sociologists and anthropologists have written about MMORPGs before, but Mr Castronova looks at the phenomenon from a new perspective: economics.

Mr Castronova’s thesis is that these synthetic worlds are increasingly inter-twined with the real world. In particular, real-world trade of in-game items—swords, gold, potions, or even whole characters—is flourishing in online marketplaces such as eBay. This means in-game items and currency have real value. In 2002, Mr Castronova famously calculated the GNP per capita of the fictional game-world of “EverQuest” as $2,000, comparable to that of Bulgaria, and far higher than that of India or China.

More here.

3QD Hosting Service (Typepad) Suffers Meltdown

Dear Readers,

As many have noticed and emailed me about, 3 Quarks Daily has lost the last five days worth of posts. This is because of a disk disaster at typepad, our hosting service. The typepad application went down around midnight, and has just come back up. They are now in the process of republishing all the data from all the sites, but this may take a couple of days. Ultimately, it is hoped that no data will be lost. Please bear with us.


The posts from the last five days have returned, but typepad is slow and behaving somewhat erratically. We are also missing many images on the posts, as you may notice. I think it will be a day or two before everything is completely back to normal. In the meanwhile, please help us finish our interrupted fundraising drive to send a student to college this spring.

Thank you.


Paul Theroux takes on Paul Hewson–better know as Bono

From the New York Times:

Theroux_1It seems to have been Africa’s fate to become a theater of empty talk and public gestures. But the impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help – not to mention celebrities and charity concerts – is a destructive and misleading conceit. Those of us who committed ourselves to being Peace Corps teachers in rural Malawi more than 40 years ago are dismayed by what we see on our return visits and by all the news that has been reported recently from that unlucky, drought-stricken country. But we are more appalled by most of the proposed solutions.

I am not speaking of humanitarian aid, disaster relief, AIDS education or affordable drugs. Nor am I speaking of small-scale, closely watched efforts like the Malawi Children’s Village. I am speaking of the “more money” platform: the notion that what Africa needs is more prestige projects, volunteer labor and debt relief. We should know better by now. I would not send private money to a charity, or foreign aid to a government, unless every dollar was accounted for – and this never happens. Dumping more money in the same old way is not only wasteful, but stupid and harmful; it is also ignoring some obvious points.

More here.  [I feel compelled to add that by no means do I endorse Theroux’s views.]

A famous victory


From Dawn:

Pakistan cricket team gave a superb performance in the third Test at the Qadhafi Stadium to crush the visiting England side by an innings and 100 runs, and in the process clinched the series 2-0. On the final day of the third Test, England went to lunch at 201 for two, and looked set to save the match with the Bell and Collingwood partnership having reached 185, and both batsmen playing very well on a placid track.
The first such victory was under the dynamic leadership of Imran Khan at Headingley in 1987. We won by an inning and 18 runs. The second such victory was at Lahore under Javed Miandad in 1987 and we won by an innings and 87 runs. In the two series prior to this one Pakistan had come in from behind to win and this time they started by grasping the initial lead. Kudos to them for their superb performance which augurs very well for the future.

More here.

Geneticists find link to brain evolution

From Brain_8 MSNBC:

A gene known to be important for brain development is more active in humans than in apes, a discovery that might have played a key role in human evolution. The gene is used by cells to make an opiatelike protein found in apes and humans called “prodynorphin,” or PDYN. In humans, PDYN is believed to be important for perception, memory and susceptibility to drug dependence. People who don’t make enough of the protein are vulnerable to drug addiction, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and a form of epilepsy, studies have found.

More here.

When the Nobels are handed out, some get left out

David Epstein in Seed Magazine:

SudarshanwebE.C. George Sudarshan [shown in picture at right], a physics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is the grumbling giant of 2005.

In early October, the Royal Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize in physics to three scientists for their work in quantum optics. Roy J. Glauber, a Harvard physics professor, was the lone theoretician honored. His research describes the behavior of light using quantum mechanics, paving the way for the field of quantum optics. Glauber’s achievement, according to the Nobel citation, “served to bring out the distinction between the behavior of thermal light sources,” like light bulbs, and “sources such as lasers”…

In a 1963 paper, Glauber laid the foundation for a quantum-mechanical explanation, which, that same year, Sudarshan extended to explain any quantum state of light. The theory is referred to as the “Glauber-Sudarshan representation” in the Nobel citation.

Sudarshan and a small group of physicists have written letters to the Nobel Committee claiming that the representation is actually more “Sudarshan” than “Glauber.”

More here.

A genealogical tree or trellis?

Carl Zimmer in his blog, The Loom:

Human_evolutionThe genetic study of human evolution really got off the ground in the 1980s. Allan Wilson of Berkeley and his colleagues compared the sequence of a gene in a sample of people and used their results to draw a genealogical tree. The gene came from mitochondria, energy-generating structures in our cells that also carry their own DNA. Wilson and his colleagues knew that we probably get all our mitochondria from our mothers. (Sperm apparently don’t deliver their mitochondria to eggs during fertilization—only 23 chromosomes that will end up in the nucleus of the fertilized egg.) If a woman’s mitochondrial DNA undergoes a mutation, she will pass that mutation down to her children, and her daughters will pass it down to their children. So finding people who share distinctive mutations allows scientists to see how closely related they are to one another. And since there was reason to think that the mutations arose at a relatively steady rate, they could even act as a molecular clock. If people shared an ancient ancestor, their mitochondria would be more different than if they shared a recent one.

The results of Wilson’s study were quite striking. The tree he and his colleagues drew showed that all of the genes on the deepest branches of the tree belonged to people of African descent.

More here.

Sex, Jealousy & Violence: A Skeptical Look at Evolutionary Psychology

David J. Buller in Skeptic:

Screenhunter_2Despite being an ardent fan of evolutionary psychology, I’m deeply skeptical about the Evolutionary Psychology paradigm. One problem concerns EP’s claim that the human mind is massively modular. Our best evidence indicates, instead, that the human mind is adapted to adapt to highly variable and often rapidly changing environments. Our species’ great cognitive achievement was not the evolution of a legion of idiots savants, but the evolution of cortical plasticity, which enables the brain to reorganize itself in response to changing epistemic demands. In this respect, the brain is very similar to the immune system, which manufactures antibodies as needed in response to changing pathogenic demands.

More here.

The art of fooling yourself, in Pinter and O’Neill

John Lahr in The New Yorker:

John“The world is full of fictional characters looking for their stories,” the photographer Diane Arbus wrote. Her words came back to me as I watched the drama of identity taking shape in a fascinating Harold Pinter double bill (well directed by Neil Pepe, at the Atlantic Theatre Company), which brings together his first play, “The Room” (1957), and “Celebration” (1999). The winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, Pinter, as a playwright, a screenwriter, a director, and a mentor, has had an enormous influence on the theatrical landscape of his time. He began his career as an actor, and, even at the outset, with comparatively crude command, he turned his actor’s understanding of subtext into a metaphysic. “The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear,” he said. “It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place.” He added, “One way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.”

Pinter claims to know only so much about his characters, who arrive as images from his unconscious; his ignorance of their history is matched by the characters’ own vagueness about themselves.

More here.  [Theater critic John Lahr who, incidentally, is the son of actor Bert Lahr, the lion in The Wizard of Oz, in photo.]

Should Europe be an American-style Melting Pot?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the Boston Globe:

1134234520_2130In the United States and the European Union, immigration, assimilation, and identity are now the hottest of political topics. But if they illustrate a profound transatlantic gulf, they also reveal sharp differences within the European countries in their experiences of immigration and their responses to it. Although some Frenchmen were quick to point out that no one was killed in their latest outbreaks, by contrast with riots in America in 1992, any honest European must ruefully admit that our experience of absorbing immigrants into the community over the past 60 years compares in many ways unfavorably with the American experience. What went wrong?

More here.

‘Death Fugue’ on the streets of Berlin

Nirit Anderman writes for Haaretz.com about a new comic-journalism book:

Illu_59_m “A plethora of different types of people populate the city streets. Almost everyone chats on their cellular telephone. A woman carrying shopping bags from the market; a teenager wearing a skullcap, engrossed in a book; a security guard scanning the area; and a boy hurrying somewhere. Above them is a tangle of electric wires; a bus passes nearby and the Shalom Tower rises in the background. All of these are accompanied by the racket created by car horns honking, engines revving, phones ringing, people talking and police sirens wailing.

This is how Tel Aviv is presented in Tim Dinter’s comics article, the opening piece in the comic-journalism book, “Cargo.” Last spring, Dinter and two other German artists – Jan Feindt and Jens Harder – came to Israel for three weeks. Three Israeli artists – Yirmi Pinkus, Rutu Modan and Guy Morad – spent time in Germany. The “Cargo” project was the brainchild of Harder and the Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv, and the assignment given to each of the artists was to express their impressions in comic-journalism articles”

more here

Richard Feynman: The Douglas Robb Memorial Lectures

From the Vega Science Trust:

A set of four priceless archival recordings from the University of Auckland (New Zealand) of the outstanding Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman – arguably the greatest science lecturer ever. Although the recording is of modest technical quality the exceptional personal style and unique delivery shine through.

Feynman_1_1_100x100_2 The Douglas Robb Memorial Lectures: Part 1 : Photons – Corpuscles of Light
A gentle lead-in to the subject, Feynman starts by discussing photons and their properties.
Feynman_2_1_100x100_1 The Douglas Robb Memorial Lectures: Part 2 : Fits of Reflection and Transmission – Quantum Behaviour
What are reflection and transmission, and how do they work?
Feynman_3_1_100x100_1 Electrons and their Interactions: The Douglas Robb Memorial Lectures – Part 3
Feynman diagrams and the intricacies of particle interaction.
Feynman_4_1_100x100 New Queries: The Douglas Robb Memorial Lectures – Part 4
What does it mean, and where is it all leading?

More here.  [Thanks to Fernando Carlos Spaulding.]

3quarks wastes bloggery influence on do-goodery

Quite a few sites have tried to help by linking to the 3QD Holiday Appeal, but this, which I just came upon, has to be the best:


3 Quarks Daily Holiday Season Collection slowing — Please Help Now

3quarks is trying to send an art student to school next semester. Or we’re being lied to and they’re going to use the money to construct a dirty bomb.

Either wayIf you’ve got the money laying around, 3quarks will take it and help put somebody through school, whether through tuition power or as a piece of radioactive debris.

I almost fell off my chair I laughed so hard. Thanks, Jim! Check out the Poor Mojo Newswire.

science, literature, mcmahon


From the polymathic bravura of Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2, which dares readers to confront consciousness’s complexity, to the dour lyricism of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, which casts science as an alluringly dreamy, ethereal enterprise, there have been a number of brilliant novels dealing with scientific ideas. But few writers have bridged the two cultures (or belied Snow’s schema) with as much apparent ease as Thomas McMahon (1943–99), a former biophysics professor at Harvard University and the author of four strikingly original novels—Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry (1970), McKay’s Bees (1979), Loving Little Egypt (1987), and Ira Foxglove (written before the others, but published posthumously, in 2004)—in addition to two books of nonfiction and numerous scientific articles and papers. McMahon was a whimsical, understated writer (and by most accounts a shy, modest man), which may be one of the reasons he is so much less well known than he deserves to be. His later novels, increasingly wry and exaggerated, bear a family resemblance to those of Kurt Vonnegut and to certain of Saul Bellow’s works. Yet there is an underlying sweetness to McMahon’s writing, a wholehearted engagement with those elements of scientific wonder that most resemble artistic creativity: how ideas come out of the blue and must be tested (in the mind or in the physical world); how experiments are most intriguing before they produce conclusions; and how finished creations, no matter how useful, have a way of falling short. The reprinting of these novels by the University of Chicago Press comes at a charged moment, when the very intricacy of the natural world and the human mind (which science and art have labored assiduously to reveal) is held aloft as evidence of a conclusion unprovable by either scientists or novelists.

more from Bookforum here.